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100 point wines must necessarily be rare

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People sometimes ask me why I don’t score as many wines with a perfect 100 points as some other wine critics do. Here’s my answer.

The only way a wine can score 100 points, IMHO, is for it to be in a large blind tasting of its peers. And by a large tasting, I mean at least, say, 30 or 40 wines. All the wines should come from the same region and be of the same type, e.g. California Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or Pinot Noirs.

Now, I know some people, including some winemakers, would argue that a statewide blind tasting is of little use, since it’s pitting apples versus oranges. Bob Cabral once told me he wishes I’d taste his Pinot Noirs against other Pinot Noirs from the same regions, so that, for example, I’d taste his Weir Vineyard Pinot only against other Yorkville Highlands Pinots. That would be pretty hard, since there are fewer Pinots from that Mendocino County AVA than I have fingers on one hand, but I take his point. Certainly, I could separate out his Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs and taste them only against other RRV Pinot Noirs (which thus wouldn’t include Weir or Bob’s Sonoma Coast bottlings).

That makes some sense. But I don’t think it’s the best way to do it. It’s certainly not the fairest. Take Cabernet Sauvignon. If I restricted myself to a large tasting only of Napa Valley Cabernet, then a Happy Canyon Cab, or one from Paso Robles or Alexander Valley, wouldn’t be able to compete against them. If I tasted the Paso Cab only in the company of other Paso Cabs, probably the overall lower quality of Paso (compared to Napa) would result in a degradation of the score of the best of those Cabernets. On the other hand, if I tasted it blind alongside Napa Cabs, it might score respectably well.

Wait a minute! Did I just imply that context is vital in reviewing a wine? Yes, I did. I know that the MW crowd is going to come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches, but it’s true. If you think Petrus is the greatest wine you ever had, and then you stick it in a blind tasting with 50 other red wines from all over the place, I guarantee you your perception of the Petrus will be influenced. You might still like it; you might like it less; it depends, because the context has shifted, and so have what Dr. Timothy Leary used to call “set and setting.”

Since I believe in contextual tasting, it seems obvious to me that the only way to accord a wine the supreme accolade is to taste it in a large setting in which, over the course of hours, the taster meticulously works his way through the wines. First, he goes through them in order, making preliminary notes, separating out the wheat from the chaff. Then, he revisits the outliers. He retastes those wines that seemed spectacular at first, in order to confirm his impressions. He might even revisit wines that seemed odd, or clumsy, to see what time in the glass has done. He revises his initial notes, making new ones. Then the process is repeated, as many times as it takes for the taster to decide that, finally, the tasting is over; all good things must come to an end. And if there remains one wine that, over all those hours, retains its supremecy to the end, then that wine deserves the highest score.

Consider the alternative: Could any reviewer with a shred of honesty or integrity blind taste a single wine, by itself, and declare it 100 points? Without context, without competitors, without calibrations to consider, such a thing is unthinkable. If you hear of anyone doing it, be skeptical. Very skeptical.

I look at other wine magazines and newsletters and see 100 point scores handed out like candy at Halloween, and I shake my head in dismay. I’d like to know the circumstances under which each of those wines was tasted. I, at least, can sign off on a 100 point score knowing that I tried my best to prevent it from happening. Why do I say that? Because a reviewer shouldn’t be profligate in awarding the highest scores. Score inflation lessens the value of high scores (and also makes the publication suspect). For a wine to be, literally, perfect in every way must always occur only rarely. Even when I am dazzled by a wine, there usually is some slight, small defect or distraction that shows up, sometimes after airing. But a 100 point wine may not have the slightest defect. It must continue to impress the mind and senses, and above all it must triumph above the competition. That means it has to be tasted in the context of a large tasting of its peers.

I recognize that others may feel differently, and I look forward to hearing your comments.

  1. Steve – Maybe you could start doing videos with winemakers where you dramatically declare that “I score this wine 100 points, a perfect wine!” and then kind of dance around the room. Oh wait, it’s been done.

  2. No names needed, but I have often thought: What would “Critic A” do if we took a handful of his favorite cult producers (the ones he tastes and reviews in person at the winery) who have scored above 95/96 repeatedly and blinded them with several dozen other wines of similar background. Would he be willing to score each on it’s own merit then publish the result publicly? I think not. What would the ramifications be if his favorite producer scored a 90, 91, or 92 instead of 98 when compared in a group? Too much to bare.

    When I see certain producers hit it out of the park with almost every wine, but I know the critic spends time with the producer and is a close personal friend, I wonder. This is of course not to say Wine Critics can’t visit in person or be friends with the producers.

    I like your group approach and this provides an interesting insight into your process Steve. Those scores should be very hard to come by.

  3. Right on! Grade inflation sells mags and earns friends, the first thing the Pythagorean’s do is search out the highest numbers when reading the latest reviews. My guess is that without sufficient “candy” handed out subscriptions/advertising rates would fall. I’ve often posited, what would happen if there were simply no high scoring wines tasted and the issue/post went to publication as is? I can hear the squeals now! As for me, there are many reviewers remarks that I take with a grain of salt. In my eyes you have cred!

  4. Wayne, you’re absolutely right. Some of these critics need to be way more transparent.

  5. Scott, I would, but I can’t afford Suckling’s videographer.

  6. george kaplan says:

    This is where a 20 point scale, which has been historically linked to some more-or-less quantifiable characteristics( color, aroma, varietal type, etc), and the stars scale( now pretty much limited to elder statesmen like Broadbent and Ol-, well, elder statesmen) can be more useful than the deceptively precise 100 point scale, which creates the illusion of a useful objectivity but eliminates the appropriate context for wine drinking , especially immature wines. Unless the 21st century context is to be a throwback to the symposia, slugging multiple bottles with stuffed grape leaves between visits to the vomitorium( I’m not knocking that,
    I’m just saying).

  7. It’s a little hard to comment without grumbling about scoring and points in general but I’ll try to say something more or less to the point.

    I see a bright contradiction here. Most critics score on an absolute scale meaning that certain terroirs and grapes can’t ever attain 100 pts. No such thing as a 100 point sauvignon blanc etc. OK so then it is only the traditionally esteemed places, grapes and producers that can possibly get such a score. But then-and this is the where the contradiction comes in-considering that the true greatness of these wines takes years or decades to manifest, how can anyone presume to predict with certainty that this young production run of bottles will indeed attain maximum potential and really, maximum everything? For that is what I take 100 pts to mean. Utter, total, realization greatness.

    Vintages veer all the time from initial expectations. Bottles with corks and variable histories veer from each other. Mind sets, settings, and service are unique each time. Repeatability or consistency seems like a willful denial of reality on the part of those that would like it to be so.

    So if 100 pts in youth is impossibly premature and 100 pts at maturity a bottle by bottle case basis, then what meaning does it have at all? The only one I can see is it is a conceited self indulgence by critics, which is encouraged by the trade on one hand, and is an anointing to be lapped up by worshipping followers of the faith on the other. Rareness is to help promote the notion of integrity while at the same time preserving marketing value.

  8. Wait just a darn-tootin’ minute thar Roy……

    Oh, I’m not Gabby Hayes….

    But, is the purpose of the 100 points to sell the wine or a reviewers/critics honest opinion. Why could a sauvignon blanc not get 100 pts? Why could a $10.00 chilean Cab not get 100 pts?

    Why does a 100pts wine have to be expensive in the first place?

    (because you are already comparing it to something else)

    Could it be that the 95-100 pt range is judged in a different way?

  9. John Roberts says:

    Yes, context matters. I believe it. And quality is objective too. By your implication, isn’t Napa then on a different level all-together than Paso? Napa’s best will always by rule be “better” than Paso, right? I’ve always felt, though, similarly, that the 100-point wine exists in this kind of Aristotelian perfection; non-existent but furnishing the imagination and thus the ladder of goods in which human things truly and actually exist. When goods matter to the degree that they do, we need that ultimate good. I’ve never tasted a 100-point wine, and like you, I’ve found flaws in all wines. We make wines, and thus their imperfection. But we make stuff that comes damn close, don’t we?

  10. John, we do come close. I’m not sure I followed your reasoning correctly, but the reference to Aristotle is apt. Aristotle felt that the human mind desired knowledge, and he was very concerned with how we know something to be true, as opposed to an illusion. We’re still having that conversation today, in the eternal debate over whether wine tasting is objective or subjective.

  11. Steve,

    Yet another interesting, thought provoking post. I find more and more that I access your site regularly to devour content.

    What you propose as a method for whittling down wines in blind tastings makes a lot of sense and therefore is pretty common, especially when there are several samples that may be similar, or alternatively have a great nose v. another with a superior palate. When I used to taste with Charlie Olken at Connoisseurs Guide, we did everything blind, two flights of eight. I regularly needed to narrow down the top three wines and come up with the one which at that moment demonstrated the best overall package, and used what I termed the “failure tree” to remove a wine from winning consideration. As a guest, it was my place to either lend support to an overall favorite, be a virile dissenter, or more amicably be somewhere in the middle, the ultimate determination was always the responsibility of the editors.

    However in the context of how I taste now and when I worked in retail is the wine is generally evaluated on its own not blind, or serially throughout an eight hour day. In this context, a palate is susceptible to wide shifts of of interference. Did I just have onions, ice cream, coffee or brush my teeth? These and dozens of other factors will whack the palate until it comes back to something the brain tells you is ‘neutral’. Needless to say, I did my best to minimize these conflicts.

    Having tasted professionally for over twenty years I rely to some degree on palate memory to help me arrive at a final evaluation and that “filter” becomes much more rigorous as the score gets higher. I consider “Is this the best of the” vintage, varietal, region, producer, previous experiences with the same wine, to help eliminate a sample from attaining a perfect score which may go far in explaining the following:

    I still have spreadsheets of tasting notes I wrote as far back as 2005. Out of 3500 wines I took notes on there were only five that received a perfect 100 point score, the last three being vineyard designated pinot noir from the same producer tasted together that I beat to death over three days before finally concluding they could not be denied. Coupled with that was the overall conservatism built into what I said about wines; only 5% of those 3500 wines received a score higher than 94.

    I respectively disagree that wines need to be tasted blind to reach a perfect score, but do agree that they should be the result of rigorous evaluation and comparison however you come to a conclusion. As critics anything we say about wine must be defendable, finding agreement among readers is another story altogether. Given the choice of tasting blind through x amount of wines over a two hour period that have all been opened at the same time vs having a bottle opened in front of me that I can taste the way a consumer would allowing me to experience it through all of its phases, I will always take the latter and have no problem putting my initials on a review I write for it.

  12. Jon R Campbell says:

    my opinion- nothing is perfect

  13. All tastings are contextual. We are human. But perhaps the real issue is in the use of the word “perfect”? Scores (by human tasters) are nothing more than a shorthand for enthusiasm. Thus 100pts probably represents “I really like this very very much and it was an earth shattering experience, the likes of which cannot even be replicated if I had [insert fantasy]”

    Since it is possible to have this epiphany in multiple different contexts, to define a unique environment that leads to the most objective and definitive orgasm, seems to take all the fun out of wine?

    The utility and limitations of scores is well established. Perhaps we should not try to stretch it to do what it really can’t do?

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